Africa to torch seized ivory in show of disgust at the killing of elephants

KWS rangers guard metal boxes containing 115 pieces Ivory weighing over 1500 kilograms with a street value of close to a billion shillings that was being exported to Nigeria May 6, 2011. The suspects wrapped the ivory in sponge and sprinkled pepper and tobacco to evade detection by sniffer dogs.

What you need to know:

  • Increased seizures of poached ivory at JKIA worries conservation experts as African countries differ on approach towards protecting elephants and rhinos

In another dramatic show of Africa’s hatred against the killing of the African elephant, the continent’s wildlife-range states plan to torch tons of stockpiles of ivory in the depth of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park next July, according to highly-placed sources within the wildlife sector.

The burn, what conservationists describe as a “leap of faith in the conservation of the elephant”, will cap a series of activities to include a meeting of ministers from countries teeming with wildlife, that include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Dr Congo, Zambia and Lesotho.

The ministers will then launch the first African Elephant Law Enforcement Day as well as the African Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring System in Nairobi.

It is still not clear the quantity of tusks to be reduced to ashes. But the source said “over 10 tons”, to include the 6.5 ton (531 elephant tusks) consignment seized in Singapore in June 2002 and later traced to Zambia, will be set ablaze.

This contraband is safeguarded at the Kenya Wildlife Service, which headquarters the Lusaka Agreement Taskforce (LATF) – a meeting of nine African countries to stop illegal trade in animals and plants.

It is instructional to note that the 6.5-ton cache of ivory was once at the centre of a diplomatic incident between Kenya and Zambia when a section of the Lusaka Parliament demanded it back.

According to a source at the LATF, the agency expected to coordinate the burning, the event will demonstrate yet again Africa’s disgust at the killing of its wildlife, a resource that brings in eight of the 10 shillings earned by the tourism industry.

“It is going to be another historical event. And it will send a clear message to the whole world that Africa is ready to cooperate to conserve its heritage and economic resource,” he said.

Contacted, Paul Udoto, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) spokesperson, said, thus: “I know there’s going to be an important activity soon, probably in July”. But he couldn’t confirm the plan to torch the ivory.

Experts regard the ivory burn as another first by Kenya, a country that spearheaded the ban on international trade in elephant and rhino horns in 1989. On July 18, 1989, former President Moi flamed 12 tons of ivory, in a historic gesture that transfixed the world to the plight of the African elephant.

The site where $1 million (Sh83 million) worth of ivory went up in smoke is symbolically preserved in the heart of Nairobi National Park.

Said Moi: “To stop the poacher, the trader must be also be stopped and to stop the trader, the final buyer must be convinced not to buy ivory … I appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory.”

The same year, 1989, palaentolgist Richard Leakey rallied the world round the elephant as well as rhino threatened by poachers.

Kenya’s elephant population had plunged from 130,000 to 26,000 in just 10 years prior to the ban, at the hand of poachers. Since then, Kenya has made huge seizures of contraband ivory. Today it has 65 tons of ivory stockpiles.

That the country is sternly opposed to resumption of trade in ivory, some or most of this pile will be destructed to send a message to the world that any dealings in elephant tusks would be detrimental to Africa’s wildlife.

However, other sources say the Cabinet will have to decide on what to do with Kenya’s ivory pile-up ahead of the July date.

“I am told that the Cabinet will have to decide by July. But the rest, ivory sourced outside Kenya, will be burned. That I am sure about.”

Exactly 22 years separate the planned event in Tsavo and the historical torching by President Moi. Yet those in the conservation circles predict another round of controversy drawing the pro-elephant lobby against an emerging voice by a host of African countries, Tanzania included, pressuring the international community to lift the ban on trans-boundary trade in ivory.

Tanzania is a key source. Not just for the ivory trafficked through Kenya but also in terms of seizures worldwide. Two years ago, the country accounted for half of the world’s 24-tonne seizure of ivory. Most of it came from the 54,600 square kilometres Selous Game Reserve and is shipped through Dar es Salaam and Mombasa ports.

Two years ago, Tanzanian authorities appealed to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the global agency that slammed the ban on trade in ivory and rhino horns, to temporarily lift the moratorium to enable it dispose 89.8 tons of ivory stockpile.

Authorities in the country had expected to raise funds from the sale to help it manage some of its wildlife conservation programmes.

Experts in wildlife matters are convinced Tanzania is in a technical bind – and are hardly surprised the neighbouring country may not be comfortable with the planned destruction of ivory at Tsavo next July.

Tanzania’s recurrent budget for the ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism for 2010/11 was a paltry TSh65.5 billion (Sh3.8 billion) which can be recouped through the sale of just 20 tons of ivory. (KWS’s budget is Sh7 billion)

“I am waiting to see how it plays out. Will Tanzania be part of the ivory burning event?” asks a scientist who formerly worked at the African Wildlife Foundation. “There are fundamental differences in conservation approaches between the two countries, Kenya and Tanzania.”

It is instructional to note that the plan to torch ivory comes barely a week after Kenya made one of its largest recoveries yet, a 1.3-ton ivory cache suspected to originate in DR Congo.

“Preliminary results show that the bulk of tusks were of forest elephants,” said Mr Udoto. “It is not conclusive but (the ivory) is likely to have come from Congo.” (Kenya’s elephant is the savannah type)

“We have to do an elaborate DNA test to be sure about the exact origin of the tusks.”

Kenya is emerging as the world’s largest transit point for illicit ivory. The amount of contraband ivory recovered here has jumped up nine-fold in the past five years, from 620 kilos in 2005 to 5.7 tons last year, according to recent tally by LATF. Over three tons of elephant tusks have been recovered this year alone.

“We are losing species of high value,” says Hadley Becha, a former executive director of East African Wildlife Society (EAWLS), who now heads the non-governmental organization, Community Action for Nature Conservation (CANCO). “We have to cooperate at the regional level to stem the flow of illicit ivory.”

Much of contraband ivory is sourced outside the country, and wildlife experts pick Tanzania and DR Congo as key supplies. South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe also account for the ivory that passes through Kenya to Asia.

Indeed, last week’s seizure points to two conveyor belts that pour into Kenya: One forks out from central Africa, specifically, the DR Congo, and the other emerges in southern Africa — as far down as South Africa.

Various reasons can explain the sheer amount recovered in Kenya: The country has an enabling environment for criminals to operate; authorities are very hawk-eyed they bust the syndicates easily.

Kenya’s advanced telecommunication industry enables organised criminals to easily hawk their merchandise using high technology methods.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is among Africa’s three key exit points for ivory, others being Addis Ababa and Johannesburg.

These are the only airports in Africa that serve the world – and thus a choice for the criminals seeking the Asian markets.

Interestingly though, the criminals use prominent airlines with deep networks to Asia, such Kenya Airways, the Emirates and Ethiopian Airlines. These remain the greatest targets by the illicit merchants.

Yet, as KWS authorities say, the sheer size of seizures betrays Kenya’s vigilance. “Kenya is doing very well (in terms of vigilance). Those (criminals) trying to pass through Nairobi find it a tall order,” says Udoto. KWS has two canine units at JKIA and Moi Airport, in Mombasa.

Next month, wildlife authorities will move to the seaport to tighten law enforcement systems there, he says. “We are aware crooks are using (Mombasa Port).”

Indeed, Mombasa Port has featured in the illicit business. Last July, customs officials in Thailand intercepted 117 tusks and other ivory peaces worth about $1.2 million (Sh186 million) from Kenya.

Three months earlier, the same authorities seized two tons of elephant tusks being smuggled through a Bangkok port from Kenya — seizure worth Sh274 million. Exactly three years earlier, customs officers in Vietnam recovered 200 kilos of tusks from Kenya hidden in timber inside a container.

Yet even as authorities target physical entry points, it will be important for them to try to dismantle the networks that now use high tech communication to run their business. These days, buyers and sellers do not have to meet physically. Rather they ply the internet.

Indeed, if you browse the net, you will find a whole range of people seeking some of the banned wildlife products.

Somehow, the Chinese and Koreans appear to be at the top of these illicit networks. Incidentally, Kenyan authorities have discovered that the most poached areas are where the Chinese are involved in construction.

“China is slowly but steadily emerging as an affluent society. Their culture and domination in Africa may spell doom to wildlife,” KWS head of security, Robert Muasya said in a presentation to wildlife stakeholders at the EAWLS on April 11, 2011.

Sophisticated it is, but the business hasn’t eluded the eye of authorities. Indeed, a regional workshop in Nairobi last year was told how the new tech facilitated the traffic of 28 tons of ivory, 10 rhino horns, 250 live reptiles and 20 preying mantis from eastern Africa to Asia, Europe and US.

“Perhaps they are getting bolder in their operations,” observed IFAW vice president Azzedine Downes.

All told, whereas Kenya appears to tighten security in protected areas, poaching outside the parks, where 70 per cent of wildlife live, is still worrisome.

For example, last year alone, 142 elephants were killed outside parks compared to 45 killed within. The rhino is also hit hardest. Only two were killed in 2006, five in 2008, and 21 last year, according to Muasya.

Poaching at the local level has been complicated by the blatant low penalties, hardly deterrent enough. The highest penalty awarded to a poacher was a two-year jail term or a fine of Sh100,000; the most lenient was a week in prison or a Sh500 fine.

These are hardly deterrent enough, according to Mr Myasya. “There are, therefore, many cases of repeat offenders.”